The O’Briens and Mossman’s Exchange Hotel

The Exchange Hotel, Mossman Far North Queensland, 2014. Picture: Mick Roberts Collection


IN August 2014 we visited the northern Queensland township of Mossman where we stopped by the magnificent Exchange Hotel. This pub dominates the streetscape, and dates back to 1896.

exchange hotel mossman 1910
The original Exchange Hotel, Mossman in 1910. Picture: Supplied.

The Exchange Hotel at Mossman was built for Irish publicans Dennis and Teresa O’Brien in 1896.

The O’Briens were married in north Queensland in 1874 before making their way to Cooktown, where they conducted a pub at ‘The Two-Mile’

They moved to Port Douglas in 1877 where they hosted the North Australia Hotel (now known as the Central Hotel).

The Central Hotel, Port Douglas, 2020. Denis and Teresa O’Brien hosted this hotel in the 1880s. Picture: Mick Roberts Collection

After some time spent as Port Douglas publicans, in 1893 the pair moved to Mossman, where they selected land near Mossman. The O’Briens grew sugar and Denis was a director of the Mossman Central Mill, with his son Edward Joseph O’Brien (one of eight children).

Denis was 55, and Teresa, 42, when they decided to open a pub at Mossman.

At the time the Exchange Hotel opened there were three pubs operating in Mossman. Two galvanised iron hotels were moved to Front Street from Craiglie in 1894, to become the Royal Hotel and Mossman Hotel, and the Queens Hotel was built in 1896. The O’Briens engaged FW Buchanan to build the first Exchange Hotel in 1896, and Teresa is listed as host in the 1897.

In 1904 the eldest O’Brien daughter, Kate, married Daniel J Kirwan, who became the licensee of the hotel in 1905, the year Denis O’Brien died at his property “Finlayvale” The North Queensland Register reported on Monday 20 November 1905:

MOSSMAN. November 14: Mr. Denis O’Brien, an old and respected resident of the district for the last 24 years, died at his home. Finlaysvale, Mossman, yesterday after noon, aged 64. The coffin was taken this morning to Port Douglas cemetery.

Teresa O’Brien died at the age of 88 in 1942. The Cairns Post reported on Monday March 16, 1942: 

One of the pioneers of Port Douglas, Mrs Teresa O’Brien died at her late residence, Mill-street, Mossman, yesterday at the age of 88 years. Deceased was the relict of the late Mr. Denis O’Brien, one of the first sugar suppliers and a director of the Mossman Sugar Mill. Deceased was born at Tullamore, Ireland, and came to Brisbane on the Royal Dane in 1873. She came north to Bowen the same year, and was married the following year to Mr. O’Brien. In 1874 Mr. and Mrs. O’Brien went to Cooktown, where they conducted an hotel at the Two-mile. Three years later they took up residence at Port Douglas, where they opened an hotel called the North Australia. It was here that the late Mr. Thomas O’Brien, son of Mr. and Mrs. O’Brien, was born, being the first white child to be born at Port Douglas. The couple in 1893 shifted to Mossman, where they established the Exchange Hotel. Mr. O’Brien became interested in sugar, and was one of the first suppliers and a director of the Mossman Central Mill… She is also survived by 21 grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.. The funeral has been arranged to leave the church at 4pm for the Port Douglas cemetery, where she will be interred beside her late husband.

Mossman had five hotels by 1910, including the Exchange, Mossman, Royal, Post Office and Queens. The Exchange Hotel was originally one storey, but had a second storey by March 1911 when a cyclone destroyed the upper floor. The hotel was repaired and continued to serve the town.

Licensees of the Exchange Hotel between 1914 and 1932 included E. J. O’Brien, Sarah Ann Agnew, William Hyslop, Ellen Maud Petersen, Helena Norman McKenna, Teresa Nugent (nee O’Brien) and Ellen Constance O’Brien.

Another cyclone badly damaged the top-storey of the pub on March 12, 1934. This time the building was replaced, with the timber sourced from the Daintree Mill. Teresa Nugent called for tenders to rebuild the pub in 1934. The architect was Vibert McKirdy Brown of Atherton. Tenders were also called for the removal of the old pub.

The Northern Herald reported the opening of the “new” Exchange Hotel on June 15, 1935:


With implicit faith in the great expansion of Mossman and the stability of this wonderfully fertile district, the owner, Mrs. D. O’Brien, has had erected this really palatial hotel on the site recently occupied by the old hotel of the same name. Its great expanse can be gauged from the fact that it covers an extent of 193 feet, facing the two main streets.

The frontage to Mill-street is 140 feet, and that to Front-street is 53 feet, with spacious verandahs, having a width of 12 feet, both back and front. On the back verandah are the ladies’ and gentlemen’s bathrooms (one in each instance having a shower) Only, and another the plunge and shower), the ladies’ being situated about the centre of the building on the Mill-street length, and the gentlemen’s at the end of the Front-street block.

The lavatories, which are part of an extensive septic system are, in each case contiguous to the bathrooms, the whole of which look — and are — spotlessly clean in their coat of white, and are most convenient.

The spaces not occupied by bathrooms, etc., are enclosed with casements, which open in sections of four, and from which, as also from the front verandah, beautiful scenic views over valley and hill can be obtained; likewise the wonderful full-length Semblance of ‘The Good Shepherd’ on the mountain in front. Those seeing this for the first time would undoubtedly have the impression that it was chiselled in the rock by a master craftsman, so realistic is the representation.

Situated on the ground floor opening on to both streets is the bar,which is of large dimensions, and in the centre of which is set an Amatice refrigerator of heroic size, capable of supplying cool drinks of every description to any number of patrons. This is practically encircled by counters, which makes for the greatest convenience in service without loss of time. As all wines, spirits, etc.,are of the best brands and quality, patrons are certain of satisfaction. At the rear of the bar there are the usual parlors and also two small alcoves, where those desiring a game of bridge, euchre or other card game can play in comfort and quiet, away from noise in any other part of the building.

The downstairs lounge is a very roomy place, comfortably and cosily furnished, where guests can enjoy a smoke and after-dinner chat, with always someone in attendance to administer to their requirements. The coffee room is also a spacious apartment, nicely set out with small tables, with, spotlessly clean cloths and napery, also cutlery and silverware. The food supplied is of the very best, and cooked and served in a manner guaranteed to satisfy the desires of the most exacting, ‘inner man.’ This room is separated from the lounge by folding doors, and, when it is necessary to ‘clear the decks for an occasion of indulging in the ‘light fantastic,’ these can be folded back almost flat to either side wall, which gives an enormous dance floor, occupying two-thirds of the Mill-street portion, and covering the whole width of that part.

The dining-room is opposite the ‘coffee-room, and the satisfying meal provided is in keeping with that expected and served in a high-class hotel. Also on the ground floor is the kitchen — which is large and airy, having been designed with an eye to coolness during the hot summer months — billiard room and shops.

The maids’ quarters is a comfortable detached building, having its own septic system.

The bedrooms, of which there are 31 (10 being double rooms) are roomy, ventilated, well-lighted and appointed, each having amongst the other necessaries a built-in corner wardrobe and a corner wash-basin, with running water if necessary. This latter does away with the necessity for a washstand, which, besides giving a greater amount of room, makes for greater cleanliness. A different color scheme obtains in every room, and the effect is indeed pleasing. A corridor, which leads into the up stairs lounge room — another well appointed and cosily furnished apartment, which, on the rear wall, has built-in cupboards for linen storage and other purposes — runs the full length of the building and divides the rooms, the even numbers being on one side and the odd numbers on the other. Each room has two doors, so that they can be entered from the corridor and front verandah, and corridor and back verandah, respectively. There is no room No. 13 in the building, so any visitor with a touch of superstition need have no fear of having to occupy a room bearing the so-called ‘devil’s number.’

Teresa Nugent, the daughter of Denis and Teresa O’Brien, with her sisters Anne Kenny and Bridget Fynn, assumed ownership of the land on which the hotel stood in August 1934. Teresa Nugent hosted the Exchange Hotel from 1934 to 1950.

The Exchange Hotel was still the “best hotel in town” in 1953 according to the local licensing inspector, and by 1964 it was reported it had a mixed clientele of travellers and permanent boarders (sugar mill workers).

Other licensees included Domingo Lombarte (1950–52), Minnie Martinez (1952-1957), Albert John McKenzie (1957–58), Angelo Papas (1958-60), Minnie Martinez, Ronald Desmond Neary, and Frederick James Dobbins during the 1960s, and Brian S. Geeves, Luigi Venturato, and Mary Susan Bryen during the 1970s.

Improvements to the Cook Highway and resorts at Port Douglas meant that tourists were favouring overnight stays in Cairns or Port Douglas by the 1980s, which led to a decline in demand for accommodation at Mossman.

From 2009 to 2013, the Exchange Hotel was renamed the Daintree Inn and catered for the family and backpacker market.

In 2013, in derelict condition, the hotel was purchased and restored by Sydney businessman Mark Collins, re-opening in 2014 once again as the Exchange Hotel.

For more history, and a review of the Exchange Hotel visit the Time Gents’ story: Road Trip: Far North Queensland, Part 3

* History thanks to Wikipedia

© Copyright Mick Roberts 2021

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